The Danger of Trinitarian Arguments for Gender Roles

So I am almost done. On Monday I talked about the things I liked in the Kellers’ book The Meaning of Marriage. On Tuesday I introduced how they argued for a complementarian understanding of gender roles, which I felt was a strange turn for the book to take. Yesterday I tried to demonstrate how natural theology is under the surface of that argument. Today I get to the real objection I have with the book, which is how underneath it all, the Kellers draw on a tenuous theology of the Trinity to develop their theories on gender roles. This is an alarming way to address a relatively open question. It is both problematic that they use such treasures to resolve a minor problem but also how dangerous is their use them.

This is a real problem, which I think justifies all these thousands of words expanded on it.

The Real Problem Is The Trinitarian Machinery of the Argument
I hope it is clear that I have huge respect for the Kellers. And the considered reader will realise that this entire complementarian edifice cannot be built simply on the natural categories I discussed yesterday. On page 200, in the succeeding chapter, they come back to the empty-set that is masculine and feminine and they re-assert that they don’t want them to be defined: “it is nearly impossible to come up with a single, detailed, and very specific set of ‘manly’ or ‘womanly’ characteristics.”

So I propose that the natural theology argument that I went over yesterday is just a habit that is slipped into, a common coin in American evangelicalism that can be traded in without ever noticing that you are passing counterfeit currency. The real machinery of the argument is the source of the major problem I have with this book.

The Kellers lock down their complementarian gender roles argument by reference to the Trinity.

I’ll let that settle in.

The entire question of Christianity could be summed up by asking, “Who do we call when we call on the name ‘God’?” The early church was made up of radically monotheistic Jews and confusingly pantheistic pagans who came to the conclusion that when you call on the name Jesus you call on God. Over time, as they grappled with what it meant to worship this God-who-begets-the-son-Jesus-who-comforts-us-in-the-Spirit, Christians derived the language of persons and essence and formulated a concept we call Trinity. God the Father, God the Son, God the Spirit. One God. Three persons. A single essence. The attributes of God followed and before long you find Thomas Aquinas sitting in Paris writing with both left hand and right at the same time, expounding on all the things we can know if we know this one thing.

So when we talk about Trinity we are talking about the very core of Christianity.

Chichester Cathedral Trinitarian tapestry by John Piper

I have thought about this for a week, since finishing the book, and I think I can phrase it gently now. It annoyed me no end upon first reading it. So here goes: To resort to Trinitarian argument to resolve a cultural question about marriage roles is the equivalent of firing a Patriot missile to drill a hole in the wall. In terms of arguments, this is as an astonishing over-reaction. It speaks of the heightened way that American evangelicals go about their business. One could speculate that the bad habits of heresy-hunting, bitching and gossipping and the lack of any real ecclesial bonds means that Christians find themselves using the most explosive and potent and subtle (and dangerously complex) tools we have to resolve relatively minor disputes.

There is a tremendous asymmetry between starting a book about marriage and finishing with a theology of Trinity.

Before we even get into the nuts and bolts of the argument, we have to see how poor a step has been made. We jump from a pastoral book full of cultural commentary into a debate about how the about-dance of God implies gender-roles in marriage (that need to be defined in each particular instance depending on context). These components don’t fit together.

But I am afraid to say, it gets worse. The Trinitarian theology that is espoused is a form of subordinationism. This is a variety of Trinitarian thinking that has re-appeared since the late 1970s. Before this generation, the last major figure I know of to espouse it was John Milton. It itself is not a heresy, but it certainly leads in that direction. If you take it to its logical conclusion it arrives at Arianism, which is the foundational Christological error. You can block its way from going down that dark alley, but only at the expense of veering off into tri-theism.

In short, this is a new and dangerous kind of argument.

What subordinationism argues is that there is a hierarchy within the Trinity. God the Father is above God the Son and the Spirit. The Son is “subordinated” to the Father and so, the Kellers argue, the wife should be “subordinated” to the husband. This is saved from being pure power-play by the perfect mutual love of the persons in the Trinity. “The Son defers to his Father, taking the subordinate role. The Father accepts the gift, but then exalts the Son to the highest place.” (176)

Now that movement can be justified on functional grounds. In the Gospel of John especially, Jesus is seen as the Sent-One, on a mission from God the Father. So you could use this to describe an aspect of Jesus’ work. But the Kellers appear to ontologize this functional arrangement. What I mean by that is that they make this arrangement part of the very being of God. They are not saying that the Father and the Son are on the same team, playing different roles, from incarnation to ascension. They are saying that the Father and the Son are in some deep way placed in an order, one above the other, one below. How else can they make the correspondence “we are differently gendered to reflect this life within the Trinity”?

If it is true that man and woman are fundamentally different, and that this reflects the life within the Trinity, then it follows that Father and Son are fundamentally different. If Father and Son are of different essence, we are no longer talking about the same thing Christians talk about when they talk about God. We must realise what is at stake when we build our picture of Trinity up from our level. The conservative Christian who embraces this argument is running the most serious of risks. It is not good evangelical theology. It is insufficient as a reading of Scripture.

And if you still don’t see the danger in this problem, I refer you to the Athanasian Creed, the Nicene Creed, or even the Westminster Confession of Faith. They all articulate a view of the Trinity that shows no trace of hierarchy, subordination or these sorts of internal roles. To speculate on the inner-life of the Trinity to justify some internal arrangement of marriage is dubious. To do it with a view of Trinity that is so fraught with ambiguity is outright dangerous.

You see the irony here? In pursuit of supporting a socially conservative position they cherish, complementarian engage in a very non-conservative interpretation of the Holy Trinity.

Conclusion: So Here’s My Problem
So can I recommend a book that is altogether excellent, apart from 35 pages that are terrible? Is it just that the solid, good stuff at the start of the book goes awry towards the end and we don’t have to stress about it too much? Or is the stuff at the end, built on a theory about the inner workings of God, the source for all the apparently solid stuff, that in fact, in retrospect, looks super-dodgy?

Books about marriage are much needed. We have so few of them that puncture the cultural idolatry of the institution, avoid getting dragged into political positions that wrestle the life out of Christian witness, and actually offer good, gracious, practical advice. I love Tim Keller’s preaching and aspire to embody his winsome and considered approach to things. I really appreciate how this book is so deeply centred on Christ. It just makes it all the more disappointing that the Trinitarian reflections do not begin from that centre either but speculate loftily.

My problem isn’t simply what do I make of this book but what are we to make of a Christian culture that sometimes seems so devoted to certain kinds of cultural institutions that we’re happy to warp the Scriptures and also our doctrine of God to keep getting the outcomes we want?

I want to recommend this. I want to buy many copies so I can give them away to friends who are getting married. Instead, this will go back on the shelf and I’ll keep looking for the book that hasn’t yet been written.

Tomorrow I will draw your attention to a much better book about gender roles that isn’t going to sell nearly as many copies or be nearly as influential. That book is Equal to Rule by Trevor Morrow.

Your Correspondent, Knows there is just one who is unconfused, unchangeable, indivisible, and inseparable

3 Replies to “The Danger of Trinitarian Arguments for Gender Roles”

  1. It seems strange that the Keller’s would espouse ontological subordination in the Trinity, given that that’s not what they argue for in terms of male and female. From what you’ve said, they maintain the equality of the sexes yet within this equality there are different functions.

    Also, while I think that natural theology and dodgy trinitarian thinking have a role to play in all of this, I would guess that the Keller’s (and others) would point you toward passages which speak of Christ being the head of the church and man being the head of the house and insist that this is an argument concerning biblical hermeneutics. The Keller’s appear to be trying to make sense of the language of man as “head” and woman as “submitting to the head”, with everything they say – including the bit about atoms – being a way of fleshing out that language. Would I be right in saying that egalitarians want to move away from that language entirely? I wouldn’t want to think of myself as the “head” of Raquel, and she definitely would not want to see her role as one of “submission” to my headship. Does that put me at odds with the author of Ephesians?

    I know the Keller’s any many others try to get around the language of “leader” or head” by adding the qualifier “servant,” but I can think of few terms that anger me more than “servant leader”.

  2. 1) Elsewhere Keller has written explicitly against ontologised subordinationism:

    “… we together confess, “There be three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the
    Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one true, eternal God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory; although distinguished by their personal properties.” Nevertheless, the Scriptures also teach that there exists a voluntary submission among the equal members of the Trinity.” (

    Yet with sentences in the book like “we are differently gendered to reflect this life within the Trinity”, I feel like that clarity is lost.

    2) I don’t think serious readers of Scripture want to move away from headship language. It is a recurring motif. But one of the strengths of Morrow’s book, which I look at tomorrow, is that the question of women in leadership is place within the context of the larger Biblical narrative. Careful and evangelical egalitarians would want to read Ephesians 5 in tandem with the other headship/body metaphors of Paul, not just as discrete and separate random occurrences of the same passage.

    As such, headship in Ephesians 5 has to be indented by body language in 1 Cor 11 (as an example) and so, in ways that you and I tend to do things, the question of ordering authority in marriage gets woven into the question of inequality around the love feast table.

    So of course Keller see this as an argument concerning biblical hermeneutics. But I think it falls short of the interpretative methods he has taught me. The subordinationist turn in Trinitarian reflection that the Kellers are drawing on here is really astonishingly poor. I left my copy of Grudem’s Systematic Theology in a box in Ireland, thinking I’d never need to look at it again. But I wish I could quote from it here.

    3) Few trends in Christianity induce #smh for me as quickly as leadership in general. Our best leaders have led us to where we are. Maybe we should let the concept and all its various qualifiers go to sleep for a while and instead let’s think about witness, faithfulness or any of the other myriad ways that don’t so easily get bogged down in this cultural power plays.

  3. Really enjoying and appreciating your thoughts in this last series of posts. I remember listening to a set of marriage sermons by the Keller’s before getting married and while I appreciated loads of it I got pissed at their ‘at the end of the day if you can’t decide between you what colour to paint the kitchen then the man will decide (although he doesnt decide without first lovingly listening to his wife’s point of view)’ attitude. I may be grosly misremembering but that was the gist. I loved what Trevor morrow says about how the word head can mean source more than ‘leader’ I found that very helpful.

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